Films based on true stories are as popular as ever with the Academy Awards, with five ‘Best Picture’ nominations this year based on real events. But while Philomena has been praised for its accuracy, The Wolf of Wall Street and Captain Phillips have both been criticized for twisting the truth.
In the case of the Wolf of Wall Street, the real problem stems from the memoir written by real life ‘wolf’ Jordan Belfort, which the film follows very faithfully. Belfort is a very unreliable narrator, but then again what can you expect from a con man? Scorsese understands this and throughout the film has Belfort ( Leonardo DiCaprio) break the fourth wall by turning to the audience to tell his story, implying we are listening to this man’s own self-glorifying and possibly delusional tale of events.
However Captain Phillips, which is the far more straight-faced of the two, has raised controversy over whether the true story has been altered for dramatic effect. Many of the real crew members claim that Richard Phillips was no hero, and was an arrogant man who put lives in danger by ignoring numerous warnings of Somali pirates. It has raised concerns that director Paul Greengrass, despite his trademark use of documentary-style handheld cinematography, has made a Hollywoodized version of the truth where the Average Joe, played by the king of Average Joes Tom Hanks, overcomes the extraordinary and becomes a hero.
It’s easy to understand the concerns over accuracy. Films are popular, and bring exposure to real events and history that people may not be that informed about, and therefore one might assume the filmmakers have the responsibility to stick to the truth. This would especially be the case for recent events that deal with delicate subjects, such as Captain Phillips, where fabrication would be looked upon as bad-taste. This was very much the case for Diana, the biopic of the late princess, which was mauled by critics for having the stench of melodramatic artifice. Wikileaks film The Fifth Estate arrived with a tidal wave of bad press over it’s apparent dishonesty, with Julian Assange writing to Benedict Cumberbatch, the actor portraying him, to drop his involvement, afraid that the general public would be grossly misinformed about his organization. He needn’t have worried. It was the biggest financial flop of 2013.
However should inaccuracy be considered as a valid criticism? A film should primarily exist to entertain, and engage, rather than inform. In the hype surrounding the release of Django Unchained, many shook their heads in distaste at the thought of Quentin Tarantino treating a story concerning slavery with the same cartoonish excessiveness of Kill Bill, yet they only needed to look at how brilliantly entertaining his World War Two film Inglourious Basterds was to put their fears to rest. Inglouroius Basterds proudly gives the finger to historical accuracy, creating an alternate WWII closer in tone to the Captain America comics than Saving Private Ryan. By doing this, Tarantino liberates himself from the facts and focuses on giving us a good time.
The same can be said for Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, perhaps one of the most famous examples of Hollywood getting history wrong big time. Braveheart aims for the drama and romance of a Robin Hood legend, throwing in a crackpot love affair between the Scottish revolutionary William Wallace and the English princess, even going as far as to say that Edward III was Wallace’s son. By being free of the constraints of a factual biopic, Braveheart seems to mythologize William Wallace as much as his countryman do, which is what makes this film so enjoyable.
Many much-loved films have sacrificed authenticity for the sake of drama, among them Amadeus, which creates a largely fictional relationship between Mozart and fellow composer Salieri, Idi Amin biopic The Last King Of Scotland, where the protagonist is a fictional proxy for the audience, and A Beautiful Mind, which greatly exaggerates the hallucinations of it’s real life subject, mathematician John Nash. In fact, the man who is guilty for some of most blatant falsifying for dramatic effect is also the most revered dramatist ever, William Shakespeare, who spiced up his historical plays with ghosts and witches.
If filmmakers and the audience want the truth and nothing but the truth, then documentaries are where they should find it. Films should have the creative license to be as inaccurate as they like, as long as it makes them more gripping, interesting and entertaining. Audience members must remember that the cinema is a place of escapism, one where the facts will always have a liberal dash of fiction.
This article was first published in the February edition of The Insiter. Grab your copy from the designated pick up points.